Masked Warblers


(This 747th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 24, 2005.)


Who was that masked man?


To those of us of a certain age (very old, that is) that inquiry is a familiar one. It was the penultimate question on the radio show, "The Lone Ranger." The response was obvious.


I rephrase that inquiry slightly here. My question and the subject of this column is: What is that masked warbler?


Many of my birding friends would respond with a long list of warbler species including golden-winged, chestnut-sided, Cape May, blackburnian, yellow-rumped, cerulean, black-throated blue, magnolia, bay-breasted and black-and-white warblers as well as American redstart and yellow-breasted chat. (Among non-warblers shrikes and waxwings are also masked.)


But I think of just two masked warblers: the common yellowthroat and the hooded warbler. As the accompanying paintings show, the yellowthroat has a black mask that stands out against its largely yellow coloration while the hooded warbler's reverse mask is yellow against its black hood. You can, of course, consider the hooded warbler's yellow "mask" as the eyehole in the hood.


These two bright little jewels are now among our most common summer resident warblers. Visit any marshy area in western New York and you will hear the cheerful "witchity witchity witchity witch" call of the yellowthroat. Then if you make "shhh" noises, like your school librarians did when you whispered too loud, the little robber will pop up out of the grass or cattails briefly to check on the source of those sounds.


The hooded warbler on the other hand is a bird of the second-growth hardwood forests that have taken over many of our rural areas from what was formerly farmland. As those woodlots have extended, this species has become increasingly common and today I find more of them than I do such woodland warblers as redstart and ovenbird.


This is another species more often heard than seen. Peterson describes its song as "weeta, weeta, weeteo" but I usually hear an additional "ta" at the beginning of that phrase. (The similar song of the magnolia warbler rises at the end instead of falling.)


Unlike the yellowthroat, however, the hooded warbler is not as easily seen. It doesn't respond as well to those shushing sounds, but a search for the songster is well worth the effort. It is one of our most handsome warblers.


As with so many birds, the females of both species lack the striking coloration of the males. The female yellowthroat has no mask at all but the female hooded warbler has varying amounts of the hood around the yellow mask, so much in a few cases that females have been misidentified as males.


The breeding range of the yellowthroat extends far to our north into Canada but few hooded warblers are found at higher latitudes.


The handsome new edition of Baicich and Harrison's "Nest, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds" (Princeton) provides interesting information about these two species. As you might expect their nests conform to their habitats.


The yellowthroat's nest, they tell us, is "a bulky cup of dead grasses and leaves, ferns, weed stems, bark strips and moss; lined with fine grasses, vine tendrils, bark fibers and often hair" sometimes with a partial covering. It is located "just above the ground or over water, in weeds, reeds or cattails." The 3-6 eggs are white or creamy white marked with blotches and scrawls that "often form a wreath about the larger end."


The hooded warbler also nests close to the ground, often in a vine tangle. The nest is "a compact cup with a loose outer layer of dead leaves; a main cup of vine-bark strips, plant fibers, weed stems down and dry catkins lined with plant fibers, fine rootlets and moss fibers." The 3-5 eggs are similar to those of the yellowthroat.


Both species feed on insects, including such forest enemies as cankerworms and gypsy moths. Yellowthroats usually find their prey on twigs and branches but hooded warblers often chase flying insects.


Like so many of our smaller birds, these warblers are often parasitized by cowbirds. I cringe whenever I see these warbler stepparents feeding young cowbirds that are already more than twice their size.-- Gerry Rising